Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous promised reforms to reduce lead poisoning in children Thursday, as school systems across the state release reports showing elevated lead levels in drinking water sources.
Flanked by nurses and educators, Jealous released a three-part plan on Thursday that would decrease Maryland’s threshold for measuring elevated blood lead levels in children, increase lead inspections and establish a tax credit to property owners who complete de-leading of their properties.
Thousands of children in Maryland have elevated lead levels, which can cause irreversible damage to cognitive and physical health.
Children are most susceptible to the effects of lead because their bodies are still developing.
Since 2012, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has urged health care providers and authorities to follow up on any young child whose blood shows a lead level as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter. Legal interventions in Maryland currently kick in at 10 micrograms. Jealous promised to adopt the 5-microgram standard.
“We have to act boldly and we have to understand the impacts on health are real. We have to act with the conviction that these are all our kids,” Jealous said. “We can’t separate out kids based on ZIP code or color or geography in any way … these are all our kids.”
At least 2,323 children under 17 in Maryland had blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms per deciliter last year, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment’s 2017 Childhood Blood Lead Surveillance in Maryland report, the most recent data available. That includes 239 children in Montgomery County.
According to the CDC, there is no safe level of lead exposure.
The other parts of Jealous’ plan include adding $5 million in funding for the Maryland Department of the Environment specifically to fund additional inspectors to ensure all regulations regarding lead poisoning are being followed, and, using the state of Massachusetts as a model, establishing a $1,500 tax credit for every private home or unit in an apartment complex that is de-leaded and passes inspection.
The pledges come as the state of Maryland is about to receive its first comprehensive look at lead levels in public schools.
In 2017, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill requiring periodic testing for the presence of lead in each drinking water outlet located in all schools. Initial testing was required to be completed by July 1 and a comprehensive report of elevated lead levels throughout the state is due to the General Assembly in December.
In Montgomery County, elevated lead levels were detected in 238 water outlets at 86 Montgomery County public schools, which was first reported by Bethesda Beat last week.
Elizabeth Jones works at one of those schools, James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, as a 10th grade English teacher.
An icemaker at the school had an initial test reading of 100 parts per billion, five times the limit in state and federal regulations. There were 22 high readings at eight of the elementary schools in the Northeast Consortium, the reports show.
Jones appeared with Jealous on Thursday to urge reforms.
“Lead poisoning follows students throughout their entire academic career and into their future,” Jones said, noting the learning and cognitive difficulties that come from early childhood lead poisoning.
Jones said that many students around the state are disadvantaged—and seemingly destined to remain that way—because they’ve been exposed to toxic lead through paint or water.
“This is one of the things perpetuating the achievement gap and it’s something that we need to put a stop to,” she said.
A Bethesda Beat analysis of the drinking water test reports in Montgomery County schools found that at least 59 drinking fountains showed high lead levels, as well as about three dozen fixtures in school kitchens. The school system said every outlet with a high reading was taken out of service and will be repaired before being put back to use or permanently shut down.